When I was very young, sometime back in the late Cretaceous when I’d occasionally play with a lonely pterosaur, I used to think that human relationships ought to be somewhat reciprocal. Sure, no relationship can be perfectly balanced even for a moment or two, and certainly not over longer duration (think: half an hour or more). But 45:55, 40:60, even 35:65 seemed reasonable and achievable and, I presumed in my naïve long-ago youth, the kind of thing I ought to be aiming for.
Slowly, over the course of eons, as the Grand Canyon was carved into orange-red rock by the forces of erosion and as the Alps rose higher and higher from what had formerly been the Tethys Sea, I discovered the error of my ways.
As I began to formulate for myself the fundamental tenets of evolutionary psychology I came to realize that men live in a particular kind of mental world shaped by the forces of selection pressure. The male brain is adapted to see relationships in a certain way because for more than 95% of our evolutionary history this certain kind of way was highly adaptive.
Imagine, gentle reader, we’re standing together in silent companionship on the African savannah 70,000 years ago. What do we see? A group of males aged between fifteen and twenty-five, armed with pointed sticks and a couple of spears tipped with sharpened flint. They are making their way cautiously and silently through the tall grass. They are alert, their senses focused on a charming and at this brief moment in time utterly insouciant dik-dik less than one hundred paces away.
These primate ancestors of ours are mute, for talking would alert their hoped-for prey; they are focused on their singular task, for distraction would lessen their chances of success (which are, alas, already slender due to their lack of speed, lack of strength, and lack of natural-predator attributes such as sharp claws and powerful jaws). We watch them advance slowly, treading with great care as they gradually reduce the distance between them and what they earnestly hope will shortly be their lunch.
Normally these males would have to exhaust their prey by pursuing it over the course of many long hours, wearing it down until it acquiesces to its fate. Today, however, the tall grass affords the chance of a quick kill, which would be most welcome as bellies are empty and the hot sun overhead is particularly fierce.
They come within spear-throwing distance. Accordingly, spears are thrown. Simultaneously two of the males with pointed sticks rush forward. One of the spears strikes the dik-dick above its front leg. Instantly it jerks and turns to run, but its escape is hampered by the muscle contracting around the flint-head. The two males are able to keep pace with it as it crashes through the long grass in a mindless attempt to flee.
Within the hour the dik-dik is transformed from lithe animal into inert carcass. The strongest of the males heaves the corpse onto his shoulders and they begin their wary return to their tribe’s dwelling place. This is in fact the most dangerous part of their journey, as every predator around will have smelled the blood. Silent progress through the long grass is impossible when carrying a dead dik-dik, so every predator around will know precisely where the group is.
More than half of the previous successful hunts will have ended with a dangerous predator claiming the prize, and in addition too often the life of one or more of the males of the group.
Against the odds, however, this time the group returns safely with the dik-dik still in their possession. Quickly the animal is butchered with sharp flint tools and divided among the hunters, who in turn take their portion to share with their immediate relatives and mates.
None of these males would have participated in the hunt if they’d believed this sharing of the spoils would not occur.
Of course there are inevitable squabbles regarding portion size, but that’s to be expected. Of course the dominant male takes the largest share; that’s how primate group species operate. But the fundamental notion of shared effort being rewarded with shared spoils lies at the heart of their co-operation. Without this hardwired expectation, and a willingness to punish any male who consistently attempts to cheat or free-ride, the group’s survival would be unlikely.
And so it is that we human males are born hardwired to imagine we live in a world of reciprocity, in which yesterday’s act of sharing will be compensated tomorrow when someone else shares with us in turn. A world in which my bond with you will be reciprocated by your bond with me. A world of collaboration and mutual burden-sharing, at least to some significant degree.
At this point, kind reader, after granting me the favor of your attention throughout the preceding paragraphs, you’re doubtless wondering what the point of this necessarily simplified vignette may be. And so, with a conceptual flourish of an imaginary red handkerchief and the waving of a non-functional magic wand, I can reveal the true purpose of this brief glimpse into our shared past.
When we are very small children we are sufficiently self-centered that we spare little thought for the efforts (if we are fortunate) our parents make on our behalf. We simply are unaware of the disparity between giving and receiving. But as we pass through the turbulent eddies of puberty we turn our thoughts towards securing a mate. And as we begin to act on our urges we unconsciously carry along with us the inherent assumption of reciprocity.
Often our untutored hearts are grievously bruised as we discover that merely because we find someone irresistible they in turn are under no compulsion likewise to find in us the stuff of which dreams are made. But we persevere, because we must, and eventually we find someone with whom we have sufficient mutual attraction and we tell ourselves we have found our “soulmate” or whatever nonsense happens to be prevalent at the time and in the culture within which we exist.
And then, in the fullness of time, we discover that no matter how generously we behave toward this person, no matter the gifts we bestow, there is in fact no mutuality in mate-oriented relationships.
Not infrequently this discovery results in bitterness that thereafter taints subsequent romantic relationships. Invariably it results in a certain hardening of the metaphorical heart. In our modern world of over-abundant calories, comfort eating may even result in a literal hardening of the coronary arteries. Heartbreak is a bitch.
The point is, we feel taken-advantage-of. Where was the reciprocity our little ape-brains expected? Life is unfair!
There are many possible reactions to this inevitable phase of disillusionment. We may tell ourselves that it was simply a case of “we didn’t find the right person” and so we set out on a new quest, convinced that if only we do a better job of mate selection this time then all will be well. We may tell ourselves that we have a tendency toward “toxic relationships” and in an attempt to break free we may contribute mightily to the monthly car payments and other obligatory expenses incurred by our favorite therapist.
There are many strategies open to us, but in the end most of us do little or nothing to address our fundamental assumptions regarding “what relationships ought to be like.”
For what little it may be worth, it is at this juncture that I will offer up my own hard-won understanding of one possible solution to our hardwired primate dilemma.
Expect nothing in return.
I do not mean this in a cynical way, or in a hard-hearted “we’re all alone and we’ll die alone so fuck you buddy” kind of way.
I mean it in a liberating way.
Letting go of our conscious and unconscious expectations frees us to behave as we see fit. When we give to others, we do so purely because we believe it’s the right thing to do, because it makes the world fractionally better than it would otherwise be and thus, indirectly, returns some small benefit to us. We do not give in the hope of receiving; we do not help because someone told us to do so; we do not act because we hope others will think better of us.
In fact, if we’re very lucky, no one will even notice what we’ve done. Due to the unfortunate vagaries of human nature, it’s usually better that way.
When we give freely, we do so in the knowledge that often the gift may cause the recipient to act negatively towards us (for few appreciate being put, no matter how gently, into someone else’s debt). As the adage says, “no good deed goes unpunished.” We give with no expectation of personal benefit aside from the feeling of having done what we feel to be right.
We may frequently find that those to whom we’ve previously been generous are incensed by our generosity towards someone else. As dear Niccolò Machiavelli pointed out not so long ago, the first time we give someone a gift they are surprised and delighted; the second time, they are pleased but can’t help compare the second gift to the first to ensure that they’re receiving their due. The third time, they expect the gift merely as their due and feel no thankfulness at all. And if they see us gifting someone else, they feel cheated. Surely this is unfair! Surely that gift should have come to them and not been squandered on someone else!
But these are all, sadly, by-products of our little ape-brains because our brains were shaped by perpetual competition for ever-scarce resources. We do not reason, but we feel most powerfully.
When we free ourselves from these constraints, however, a new way of feeling becomes (at least occasionally) possible. A feeling of knowing who one truly is, and being comfortable with that knowledge.
This isn’t the same as becoming someone else’s lifeboat. Boundaries don’t vanish and lost causes remain a waste of our time. We can only help those who are trying to help themselves. But within these necessary constraints, we are free to act or not act as we see fit. Because we’re not trapped within a worldview of necessary reciprocity.
And on those rare occasions when we ourselves are the recipient of someone else’s kindness and generosity, we can fully feel and appreciate the wonder of it all.
This is the liberation alluded to in the title of this article. Perhaps it is an attitude that can come only with age and the accumulation of a lifetime’s experiences: the victories, the defeats, the losses, and the gains. Perhaps it requires a certain distancing of oneself from the hurly-burly of quotidian life, and that may be something that commences only as we enter the closing years of our lives, as I myself am doing now.
Whatever the cause and whatever the route by means of which we reach this place, I can say from experience that it provides not only relief but also a certain quiet satisfaction. We are here for the merest fleeting instant; it’s a delight if during this instant we can in some small way contribute to the world around us in what is hopefully a positive manner.
It’s what we leave behind us that counts.